Posts Tagged ‘Intellectual Property’

Altium Looking to Gain Altitude in the Cloud

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Altium Enterprise Vault SystemOver the holiday break, I came across an interview of Altium CIO Alan Perkins that caught my eye. Sramana Mitra has been focusing on interesting cloud-based businesses and this interview focused on how this EDA company was planning to move into the cloud. I wasn’t able to talk to Alan Perkins directly, but I was able to find out more through their folks in the US (the company is based in Australia). It was interesting enough to warrant a post.

I knew very little about Altium before seeing this interview and maybe you don’t either, so here is a little background. Based in Australia, Altium is a small (~$50M) EDA company focused primarily in the design of printed circuit boards with FPGAs and embedded software. They formed from a company called Protel about 10 years ago and most recently gained attention when they acquired Morfik, a company that offers an IDE for developing web apps (more on that later). According to some data I saw and from what they told me, they added 1700 new customers (companies, not seats) in 2010 just in the US! So, they may be they best kept secret in a long while. (Ironically, the next day at work after I spoke to Altium, I spoke to someone at another company that was using Altium to design a PC board for us).

According to Altium, their big differentiator is that they have a database-centric offering as compared to tool-flow centric offerings like Cadence OrCAD and Allegro and Mentor’s Board Station and Expedition and related tools. I’m not an EDA developer, so I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of one versus the other. However, when I think of a “database-centric”, I think of “frameworks”. I know it’s been almost 20 years since those days, and things have changed, so maybe database-centric makes a lot of sense now. OpenAccess is certainly a good thing for the industry, but that is because it’s an “open standard” while Altium’s database is not. Anyway, enough on this matter because, as I said, I’m not an EDA developer and don’t want to get in too deep here.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Is IP a 4-Letter Word?”. The main thrust of that post was that IP quality is rather poor in general and there needs to be some sort of centralized authority to grade IP quality and to certify its use. So, when Altium told me they plan to enable a marketplace for design IP by creating ”design vaults” in the cloud, my first question was “who is going to make sure this IP is any good”? Is this going to be the iPhone app model, where Apple vets and approves every app? Or is it going to be the Android model, caveat emptor.

To Altium’s credit, they have similar concerns, which is why they are planning to move slowly. With their introduction of Altium Designer 10, Altium will first provide it’s own vetted IP in the cloud. In the past, this IP was distributed to the tool users on their site, but having it in the cloud will make it easier to distribute (pull, insted of push) and also allow for asynchronous release and updates. The tools will automatically detect if you are using an IP that has been revved, and ask you if you want to download the new version.

Once they have this model understood, Altium then plans to open the model up to 3rd party IP which can be offered for free, or licensed, or maybe even traded for credits (like Linden dollars in Second Life). It’s an interesting idea which requires some pretty significant shifts in personal and corporate cultures. I think that sharing of small “jelly bean” type IP is acheivable because none of it is very differentiated. But once you get to IP that required some significant time to design, why share it unless IP is your primary business. The semiconductor industry is still fiercely competitive and I think that will be a significant barrier. Not to mention that it takes something like 4x-5x as much effort to create an IP that is easily reusable as compared to creating it just to be used once.

Being a tool for the design of FPGAs is an advantage for Altium, since the cost of repairing an FPGA bug is so much less than an SoC or ASIC. For FPGAs, the rewards may be greater than the risks, especially for companies that are doing ASICs for the first time. And this is the market that Altium is aiming for … the thousands of sompanies that will have to design their products to work on the internet-of-things. Companies that design toasters that have never had any digital electronics and now have to throw something together. They will be the ones that will want to reuse these designs because they don’t have the ability to design them in-house.

Which brings us to Morfik, that company that Altium acquired that does IDEs for web apps. It’s those same companies that are designing internet enabled toasters that will also need to design a web app for their customers to access the toaster. So if Altium sells the web app and the IP that let’s the toaster talk to the web app, then Altium provides a significant value to the toaster company. That’s the plan.

Still, the cloud aspect is what interests me the most. Even if designers are reluctant to enter this market, the idea of having this type of central repository is best enabled by the cloud. The cloud can enable collaboration and sharing much better than any hosted environment. And it can scale as large and as quickly as needed. It allows a safe sort of DMZ where IP can be evaluated by a customer while still protecting the IP from theft.

This is not by any means a new idea either. OpenCores has been around for more than a decade offering a repository for designers to share and access free IP. I spoke with them a few years ago and at the time the site was used mainly by universities and smaller companies, but their OpenRISC processor has seen some good usage, so it’s a model that can work.

I’m anxious to see what happens over time with this concept. Eventually, I think this sort of sharing will have to happen and it will be interesting to see how this evolves.

harry the ASIC guy

Synopsys’ Digital to Analog Conversion

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Last Thursday, the same day that Synopsys announced it’s acquisition of MIPS’ Analog Business Group (ABG) for $22M in cash, I had a long overdue lunch with a former colleague of mine at Synopsys. We spent most of the time talking about family, and how each other’s jobs were going, and the economy, and the industry in general.

At some point, the discussion got around to Aart DeGeus and his leadership qualities. My friend, who plays bass guitar with Aart on occasion, shared with me his observations of Synopsys’ CEO outside of work. “He’s a born leader, even when he’s playing music,” my friend said as he related one story of how Aart lead the band in an improvisational session with the same infectious enthusiasm he brings to Synopsys. Here’s a look.

While driving back from lunch, I recalled a field conference from the mid 1990s where Aart introduced the notion of “Synopsys 2″. Synopsys 2 was to be a new company (figuratively, not literally) that would obsolete Synopsys 1 and take a new leadership role in a transforming industry. At that time, Synopsys 1 was the original “synthesis company” along with some test and simulation tools. The industry challenge driving Synopsys 2 was the need for increased designer productivity to keep up with chip sizes increasing due to the inexorable and ubiquitous Moore’s Law.

Aart’s vision for this new EDA order was twofold. First, behavioral synthesis would allow designers to design at a higher, more efficient, and more productive level of abstraction, thereby increasing their productivity. In fact, your’s truly helped develop and deliver the very first DAC floor demo of Behavioral Compiler. I also developed a very simple but elegant presentation of the power of behavioral synthesis that was used throughout Synopsys, garnered the praise of Aart himself, and sits in my desk as a memento of my time at Synopsys. Unfortunately, behavioral synthesis never really caught on at the time. Oh well. So much for that.

The second part of Aart’s productivity vision was design reuse. Needless to say, that vision has come true in spades. I don’t have reliable numbers at my finger tips, but I would guess that there is hardly a chip designed without some sort of implementation or verification IP reuse. Some chips are almost entirely reusable IP, with the only custom logic stitching it all together. I can’t imagine designing 100M gate chips without design reuse.

Design teams looking for digital IP were faced with a straightforward make vs. buy decision. On the one hand, most design teams could design the IP themselves given enough time and money. They could even prototype and verify the IP via FPGA protoytype to make sure it would work. But could they do it faster and cheaper than buying the IP and could they do it with a higher level of quality? The design team that decided they could do a better, faster, cheaper job themselves, did so. The others bought the IP.

But analog and mixed signal IP is very different. Whereas most design teams have the skills and ability to design digital IP, they usually do not have the expertise to design complex analog and mixed signal IP. Not only are analog designers more scarce, but the problem keeps getting harder at smaller geometries. Ask any analog designer you know how hard it is to design a PLL at 65 nm or 45 nm. What were 4 corner simulations at 90nm become 16 corner or even monte-carlo simulations at 45 nm and below. Not only is analog design difficult, but it often requires access to foundry specific information only available to close partners of the foundries. And even if you can get the info and design the IP, there is no quick FPGA prototype to prove it out. You need to fab a test chip (which is several months), complete with digital noise sources to stress the IP in its eventual environs. The test chip can cost several million dollars (much more than an FPGA protoype for digital IP) and you’d better count on at least one respin to get it right.

That is why Synopsys’ acquisition of the MIPS ABG IP is such a good move. The “value proposition” for analog IP is so much greater than for digital IP. It’s not a matter of whether the customer can design the IP faster, better, cheaper, it’s whether he can design it at all. By expanding its analog IP portfolio, at a bargain price, Synopsys is well positioned to provide much of the analog and mixed signal IP at 65 nm and below. In addition, this acquisition gives Synopsys a real analog design team with which they can perform design services, something they have coveted but lacked for some time.

Once again, it looks like Aart is taking the leadership role. Look for other companies to follow the leader.

harry the ASIC guy

Is IP a 4-letter Word ???

Friday, May 9th, 2008

As I’ve been thinking a lot about Intellectual Property (IP) lately, I recently recalled a consulting project that I had led several years ago … I think it was 2002. The client was designing a processor chip that had a PowerPC core and several peripherals. The core and some of the peripherals were purchased IP and our job was to help with the verification and synthesis of the chip.

Shaun was responsible for the verification. As he started to verify one of the interfaces, he started to uncover bugs in the associated peripheral, which was purchased IP. We contacted the IP provider and were told most assuredly that it had all been 100% verified and silicon proven. But we kept finding bugs. Eventually, faced with undeniable proof of the poor quality of their IP, they finally fessed up. It seems the designer responsible for verifying the design had left the company half way through the project. They never finished the verification. Ugh 1!

Meanwhile, Suzanne was helping with synthesis of the chip, including the PowerPC core. No matter what she did, she kept finding timing issues in the core. Eventually, she dug into the PowerPC core enough to figure out what was going on. Latches! They had used latches in order to meet timing. All well and good, but the timing constraints supplied with the design did not reflect any of that. Ugh 2!

About a week later, I was called to a meeting with Gus, who was the client’s project lead’s boss’s boss. As I walked into his office, he said something that I’ll never forget …

“I’m beginning to believe that IP is a 4-letter word”.

How true. Almost every IP I have every encountered, be it a complex mixed-signal hard IP block, a synthesizable processor core, an IO library … they all have issues. How can an industry survive when the majority of the products don’t work? Do you think the HDTV market would be around if more than half the TVs did not work? Or any market. Yet this is tolerated for IP.

That is not to say that some IP providers don’t take quality seriously. Synopsys learned it’s lesson many years ago when it came out with a PCI core that was a quality disaster. To their credit, they took failure as a learning opportunity, developed a robust reuse methodology along with Mentor Graphics, and reintroduced a PCI core that is still in use today.

Still … no IP is 100% perfect out-of-the-box. IP providers need to have a relationship and business model with their customers that encourages open sharing of design flaws. This is a two-way street. The IP provider must notify its customers when it finds bugs, and the customer must inform the IP provider when it finds bugs. As an example, Synopsys and many other reputable IP providers will inform customers of any design issue immediately, a transparency that I could have only prayed for from the company providing IP to my client. In return, they need their customers support by reporting design issues to them. Sounds simple, right?

Maybe not. I had another client who discovered during verification that there was a bug in a USB Host Controller IP. They had debugged and corrected the problem already, so I asked the project manager if they had informed the IP provider yet. He refused. The rationale? He wanted his competition to have the buggy design while he had the only fix!

We, as users, play a role because we have a responsibility to report bugs for the good of all of us using the product. Karen Bartleson talks about a similar situation with her luggage provider, where customers are encouraged to send back their broken luggage in order to help the company improve their luggage design. The luggage gets better and better as a result.

So, besides reporting bugs and choosing IP carefully, what else can we as designers do to drive IP quality. I have one idea. One day, when I have some free time, I’d like to start an independent organization that would objectively assess and grade IP. We’d take it though all the tools and flows and look at all the views, logical and physical, and come out with an assessment. This type of open grading system would encourage vendors to improve their IP and would allow us to make more informed choices rather than playing Russian Roulette.

I’m half inclined to start one today … anybody with me?

harry the ASIC guy

OSU - Open Source University

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Below is a video presentation that was given in 2006 by Rice University Engineering Professor Richard Baraniuk at the TED conference in Monterey, CA. Professor Baraniuk is founder of Connexions, a free, open-source, global clearinghouse of course materials that allows teachers to quickly “create, rip, mix and burn” coursework — without fear of copyright violations. Think of it as Napster for education. I think this is well worth 18 minutes of our time, since we all have an interest in education for ourselves, our children, and our peers. When you’re done, a challenge.



Now for the challenge … I’d like you to consider what this approach would do for the ASIC Intellectual Property industry, if we could all collaborate to create, rip, mix, and burn design IP under user friendly legal terms such as Creative Commons.

What do you think?

harry the ASIC guy